Johann Sebastian Bach sometimes needed a break from the organ loft. He would entertain at the Cafe Zimmerman, a popular coffeehouse in Leipzig, Germany.
For his gigs at the Cafe Zimmermann, Bach wrote a lot of his secular music. Gems like the “Coffee Cantata,” defending coffee against its critics, as well as colorful concertos for violins and other solo instruments.
Charmed by this bit of musical history, the Buffalo Chamber Players recognize Bach as a kindred spirit. The group of musicians – most of them from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra – love to challenge the conventions of classical music. And so, they dreamed up the concept of “Bach and Brews” that take place at The 9th Ward at Asbury Hall.
“People can come, pay for a drink, sit down, and enjoy great music,” says BPO violist Janz Castelo de Armas, who founded the Buffalo Chamber Players 17 years ago.
“They can enjoy the music the same way people were doing in the early 1700s. It takes music and art off of the pedestal we put it on.”
That philosophy typifies the freewheeling spirit of the Buffalo Chamber Players. For 17 years, the one thing predictable about this group has been its unpredictability.
BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta has cheered on the group from the word go. “I thought it was fantastic to give them that outlet,” she says. “Almost all of them are in the BPO, and it was really a chance for them to give something we couldn’t provide them. It was just so beneficial in every way. It gives them so much joy and gave the community an opportunity to hear chamber music played on the highest level. And it brought the musicians closer to each other.”
The Buffalo Chamber Players invited Falletta, an accomplished classical guitarist, to perform with them as a soloist at Buffalo Seminary as part of their first concert. She happily accepted.
“Janz has plenty of ideas,” she says of Castelo de Armas. “The concert I played on also included a fantastic viola piece by Paganini, and also music by Manuel de Falla. He’s filled with creative ideas. I think that’s why he wanted to start this. He’s not just a great player, he’s a great musical thinker. He thinks about how people work together, and the impact the music would have on the audience.
“He welcomes people, and he talks about music in such a friendly, open way. He’s about the music. It’s really ideal. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Castelo de Armas, a native of Puerto Rico and an alumnus of the Peabody Institute, thinks about the way he talks about music, and presents it. He admits to ambivalence toward the term “classical music.” “I always use ‘classical’ in quotes,” he says. “I think we have to start taking the music to the people.”
He and his friends have done that, over the years, in varying ways.
An early production had Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” fully staged with actors, at Buffalo Seminary. “Also, baroque operas, semi-staged,” Castelo adds. “We don’t bite off more than we can chew, but we like to tackle things like that.”
“Last spring, in March 2023, we did a silent film at Asbury Hall, the Harold Lloyd movie ‘Safety Last.’ That’s the movie where he is hanging from the clock. We performed the live score. We had clip tracks, so everything lined up perfectly. That’s not something most chamber music ensembles do. But it’s fun.”
Another highlight was the acquisition of a harpsichord. The audience will get the chance to see it at “Bach and Brews,” and it is always a crowd pleaser. The Buffalo Chamber Players rescued the decaying old instrument from the basement of Kleinhans Music Hall in 2020 and solicited donations to restore it.
“It’s the people’s harpsichord, because it really was community funded,” Castel de Armas says. “Inevitably, during intermission everyone gathers around the harpsichord and is asking questions about it.”
And both Castelo De Armas and Falletta revel in recalling 83-year-old Krzysztof Penderecki’s 2016 visit to the BPO. The great Polish composer, who died in 2020, asked Falletta if there was any chance anyone in town could perform any of his chamber music while he was here.
“JoAnn asked us, ‘Could you do a program of all Penderecki?’’” is how Castelo de Armas tells it. “Not only did we perform a huge program, but he was in attendance. I was able to give him a tour. We went to the AKG. We had coffee together in the cafe there.” He pauses, luxuriating in the memory. “Our biggest-selling concert wasn’t Mozart or Beethoven, it was all Penderecki,” he laughs. “That is a testament to Buffalo audiences, and the history we have here.”
Ask Castelo de Armas about his plans for the Buffalo Chamber Players, and you get answers that are all over the map: a festival dedicated to Schubert, a mobile music truck inspired by Bach, and a concert with musicians encircling Hoyt Lake.
“I’ve spent a long time here in Buffalo,” he says. “I have children born here. It’s a great city. I want Buffalo to be a destination for music and art.”